Every now and again it’s probably healthy to crack open the glass, remove a certain world masterpiece from the display case, and in re-reading it recall that—unlike Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, two other novels once deemed obscene by the tribunes of moral upkeep— Lolita is a disgusting book. Furthermore, the day will never come when it is not a disgusting book. By comparison, in fact, it can make Lawrence and Joyce look like a pair of old village bluenoses. For all its arduous recourse to the c-word, Lady Chatterley’s Lover places its faith in the sexually fulfilled marriage, a ho-hum piety in the age of divorce. For all its scatological frankness, Ulysses tells the touching story of a surrogate father finding his surrogate son. Lolita, meanwhile, tells the story of a stepfather serially defiling his adolescent stepdaughter. Public taste was meant to catch up to Lady Chatterley screwing her gamekeeper, to Leopold Bloom sitting on his jakes. Public taste was never meant to catch up to Humbert Humbert.
“I want my learned readers to participate in the scene I am about to replay,” Humbert asks us early on, by way of setting up his description of his first taste of sexual bliss with Lolita, the pre-pubescent daughter of his landlady. (Humbert will eventually marry the landlady; the landlady will eventually die; Humbert will eventually abscond with Lolita. For now, though, he is only their boarder, a debonair European with certain hidden proclivities.) “So let us get started. I have a difficult job before me.” This is Nabokov winking out at us. By difficult job, Humbert means: I want to conjure this scene up, with all its strange anatomical circumnavigations, as carefully as possible, to demonstrate to the reader that I am not wholly a monster. (He also means: I had to ejaculate, without letting Lolita know.) By difficult job, Nabokov means: I will indulge Humbert in all his strange circumlocutions, to demonstrate to the reader what a total monster he is. In this respect, Nabokov and Humbert have opposing aims; but in the telling, they become as one. All the comically baroque pleonasms help Humbert shield from himself how repulsively he has acted. They allow Nabokov, meanwhile, to describe a rapine act of frottage without becoming explicitly pornographic. Here is some of what follows: “She was musical and apple-sweet. Her legs twitched a little as they lay across my live lap; I stroked them; there she lolled on in the right-hand corner, almost asprawl, Lola, the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice, losing her slipper, rubbing the heel of her slipperless foot in its sloppy anklet, against the pile of old magazines heaped on my left on the sofa—and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty—between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock …”
Lolita turns 50 this year, and having stayed so perverse, it remains fresh as ever. To fully appreciate its perversity, though, one must first appreciate that it is not obscene. Your run-of-the-mill obscene masterwork—Tropic of Cancer, say—demands that you, enlightened reader, work your way past the sex and excrement to recognize how beautiful it is. But with Lolita, you must work past its beauty to recognize how shocking it is. And for all its beauty, for all its immense ingenuity and humor, one easily forgets how shocking Lolita is. To wit: Later in the narrative, Humbert has settled with Lolita in a small town called Beardsley and set up a semblance of a normal suburban life. Humbert is called into Lolita’s private school for a parent-teacher conference, where he is told that she is “antagonistic, dissatisfied, cagey” and “obsessed with sexual thoughts for which she finds no outlet.” In essence, Humbert is being offered an inventory of the damage he has wrought on his stepdaughter, but all he can do is sneer inwardly at the messenger, a psychobabbling crone named Pratt, and then … and then … well, what happens next is so shocking, and yet so calmly and economically detailed, it had somehow absented itself from my memory of the novel. Humbert finds Lolita sitting in a study hall with a sepia print of Reynolds’ ‘The Age of Innocence’ above the chalkboard, and several rows of clumsy-looking pupil desks. At one of these, my Lolita was reading … and there was another girl with a very naked, porcelain-white neck and wonderful platinum hair, who sat in front reading too, absolutely lost to the world and interminably winding a soft curl around one finger, and I sat beside Dolly [Lolita] just behind that neck and that hair, and unbuttoned my overcoat and for sixty-five cents plus the permission to participate in the school play, had Dolly put her inky, chalky, red-knuckled hand under the desk. Oh, stupid and reckless of me, no doubt, but after the torture I had been subjected to, I simply had to take advantage of a combination that I knew would never occur again.
Accustomed to receiving Lolita as evidence of towering genius, we hide a question in plain sight: Why did Nabokov choose to inhabit Humbert Humbert, a pitiable half-mad émigré suffering from acute nympholepsy, in the first place? One clue is hidden in the last part of that last sentence: I simply had to take advantage of a combination that I knew would never occur again. Humbert means: Look, I had to avail myself of that hand-job, because when might the opportunity ever recur? But Nabokov, again winking at us, means: I love the exquisite particularity of that specific instant. The only psychiatrist Nabokov could tolerate was Havelock Ellis, for whom “the individuality of each case is respected and catalogued in the same way that butterflies are carefully classified,” as one of Nabokov’s biographers has explained. (Nabokov was a famous lepidopterist.) Conversely, Nabokov detested “Freudian voodooism,” as he once put it, because he saw in Freud an attempt by psychiatry to corner, appropriate, and submit to generalized principles people’s inner lives. And submitting one’s inner life—the unique hazard of one’s personality, the camera obscura of one’s own personal store of memories—to a set of deterministic explanations was for Nabokov an indignity on par with the expropriations of the Bolsheviks.
To inhabit a pedophile—and not just a pedophile, but a European pedophile, on an American soil Nabokov had himself grown to love!—was to torture in extremis his faith in the sanctity of the exquisite inner life. We are clearly meant to regard Humbert as a moral abomination, and even Humbert eventually concedes (it is one of the book’s most beautiful and unforgettable passages) that in exploiting Lolita he has gratuitously destroyed another human being. And yet, how close to absolute Nabokov makes Humbert’s claim to his own thoughts and feelings! There are two competing accounts in Lolita for why Humbert is a pervert. The first is a bit of personal mythopoeics put forward by Humbert himself, who believes his (entirely natural) love for a young girl named Annabel when he was a young boy, and its brutally abrupt interruption, explains the origin of his adult nympholepsy. Later, Humbert tells us of having once bribed a nurse to show him his psychiatric files, in which he discovered he has been labeled “homosexual.” The first explanation is poetic, beautiful, intensely rendered, utterly self-serving, and probably untrue. The second explanation is clinical, dispassionate, probably true, but so neglectful of the intensity of Humbert’s own consciousness as to be repulsive to Nabokov.
Nabokov overcame the worst affliction of all, from a writer’s point of view: a happy childhood. He was an eldest child who chose to pretend he was an only child. Testimony from acquaintances relates how loath he was even to casually discuss siblings, and one can read dozens of pages of Speak, Memory without ever sensing he had to share his parents’ affections. (“There was a sunny quality about the way he talked of his own family,” one of his Wellesley students has recalled, “One had the feeling of the much-loved little princeling. Clean linen and hot milk and never a scolding.”) That utter primacy, of the little princeling basking in the eyes of his justly revering parents, seems never to have left Nabokov, but as a genius, he understood it both as his burden, and as his unique portal to aesthetic discovery.
Lolita is most commonly remembered as one man’s living poem to his own daemonic perversity, and as such, is overpraised by its adherents for its technical virtuosity and hilarity, and misconstrued by its detractors as little more than a frost-encrusted monument to Nabokov’s own monumental arrogance. Its real genius is too easily missed. It lies in what Nabokov called the “nerves of the novel,” the “secret points, the subliminal coordinates by means of which the book is plotted.” In these, Nabokov has hinted at the life that exceeds the perimeter of Humbert’s encompassing obsession—at the inner lives of those others whom he so casually dismisses or destroys. It cost Nabokov, by his own admission, “a month of work” to write one sentence in which Humbert gets his hair cut by a barber who has never stopped mourning his dead son—a fact that scarcely dents Humbert’s exquisite consciousness.